Breathing In The Slow Flow of Summer

I love every season.  Each has its own flavor, enriching the year and bringing festivities. But there is one season that I’ve always associated with freedom: Summer.  Since childhood summer vacations from school, the slow rhythm of California in the summertime has long rocked my heart.  

I just finished my eleventh year of teaching.  Being a teacher has kept me pretty much on the same schedule I’ve had since I was a child in school, and my summers are now a monumental part of the year that I look forward to with earnest.  I had Summer jobs before, but that changed when I started teaching full-time.  After my first year, I taught Summer School Math; I didn’t feel recharged when I began the new year in the Fall.  After that, I decided to just take the time off and enjoy it for what it was: vacation.

This Summer in particular feels especially needed: after ten years of teaching sweet, innocent sixth graders, I moved to seventh grade last year.  I had new Math and Science curricula to teach, and a slew of challenging social dynamics to figure out.  What a difference one year makes.  I felt like I’d finished a marathon by the last day of school on June 8, exhausted and emotionally spent.  I was ready to sink into sweet summertime.

As a teacher, Summer is fundamental to recharge myself.  These 9+ weeks are sacred; I cherish everyday.  There is such beauty in the simple freedom of not having to do anything.  Lifting the obligations of work buoys my spirit and inspires me to seize my free time to the fullest.  Knowing that I am committed from late August to early June every year, start to finish, day in day out, is enough to make me really appreciate every day off in the Summer.  

My job is so time-bound: I must follow a bell-schedule with 47-minute time periods; I must plan and pace my curriculum so as to cover all of the required standards, and decide just how much time to spend upon those content areas.  Restroom breaks are strategically planned around the brief reprieves of passing periods.  Everything about my job is time-oriented.  And I know that until the last day of school in early June, I am responsible for my sixty-odd students and their learning of Mathematics and Science. Therefore, when I reach the end of one school-year, I really like to celebrate just being done.  I don’t want to look ahead at next year’s kids, or plan my first days; I want to take a breath and reflect upon all I’ve just completed.  I love being done.

Free time, choice, opportunity.  What a gift to wake up in the morning after sleeping in to my heart’s content, a promising blank slate of a day greeting me with so many choices.  Beach day?  Trail running day?  Getaway trip to ride somewhere new?  Living where we live presents a plethora of recreational choices to choose from.  I love California, and the Santa Cruz Mountains where I live.  

Choices also include doing “nothing”, which I am a huge fan of.  Unstructured time to yourself is a beautiful thing.  There are days on end in the Summer where I may not even leave my driveway.  Hours are spent moseying around the house contentedly bouncing from one project to another.  This is truly precious time.  Although I certainly get out and stay active in the summertime, I find these stretches of homebound time really ground me.  Long yoga sessions, gardening projects, and harmonizing the house fill a Summer day quite nicely.  After all, how many times during the school-year do I think to myself, I just want to be home?  Therefore, I soak up this opportunity to really be at home.

I think of Summer as a bit of a hibernation, despite Winter being associated with that process.  As a teacher, this is my least social time of the year if you consider the amount of interactions and talking I’m doing each day.  September through June, I give so much of my energy to my students and my job.  I must speak often, interact with many different people of all ages, and overall be “out of my shell”.  This is the one time of year where I can focus on what I want to do everyday, planning not thematic units but enriching activities of interest.  Going “in the shell”, so to speak, allows me to reflect and rejuvenate.  

It all starts with slowing down.  The slow pace of Summer is one of its most therapeutic effects.   I mean really slowing down, like taking an hour to read the Sunday newspaper with your coffee, or strolling through a forest at a snail’s pace birdwatching, in no hurry at all.  Not having a schedule allows such freedom.  This slow flow invites us to enjoy the simplicity of life, all the little things.  

Slowing down is also a conduit for gratitude.  Only now, on July 16 in the middle of Summer, am I truly feeling that deep sense of appreciation for exactly how things are now.  Over this last year, I’ve used the word “more” to describe my general attitude on life.  “I want more!” was pretty much how 2017 kicked off for me.  I was feeling very happy with my life and the way things were going: in 2015 I got married to the love of my life, Ron, and we bought a house in Ben Lomond that same year.  We had a great new life in the Santa Cruz Mountains with our cat Beau.  I was healthy, and having fun with my hobbies.  My job teaching was admittedly at a shifting point; I’d had many changes over the last two years with new curricula to teach, and moving from teaching sixth to seventh graders last year.  Certainly I was feeling a bit of burn out.  

I was also feeling really tired of getting up early.  I know that may sound spoiled, but I have a medical reason for it: sleep apnea.  I was only diagnosed in 2015, after a friend recommended I see a doctor based upon her friend’s similar symptoms.  It explained so much: why I always hated waking up early for school as a child (especially as a teenager); why I still as an adult hated waking up early so much, sometimes so much I am angered by it.  All those mornings where I kept snoozing my alarm clock; mornings of sleeping through my parents yelling at me to get out of bed, or often announcing that they would be leaving in ten minutes with or without me.  Falling asleep in class.  My occasional night-terrors made more sense; my doctor said many people have them who have apnea, and they are often linked to episodes of hypoxia, the moments when I am not breathing.  

Not breathing.  Not breathing is my biggest fear in life, a fear I share with many others, surely.  Allow me to digress about that for a few paragraphs now.  

When I was two, I was saved from my grandmother’s pool by my older sister Mary.  I had apparently sunk to the bottom of the shallow end, and was just sitting there holding my breath at the bottom of the pool.  No one was directly watching me in that moment, but my sister took notice.  She remembers it clearly; I actually remember how the water and sunlight danced as I sat there on the pool floor.  She grabbed me out of the water, and I was fine after coughing a bit.  But if she hadn’t noticed me, things could’ve gone a lot differently.  I owe my sister my life.

Then, when I was around six years old, I was learning to waterski with training skis that were tied together.  There was an attached rope which an adult was to hold onto in the boat, letting go upon the skier falling.  There was a separate training rope with a handle for me to hold onto, which was connected to the skis.  But I had no control over the rope attaching me to the boat, and was relying upon my mom, who was holding the other end, to let go of it should I fall underwater.  I wore a life-jacket, of course.

My dad checked that I was ready, and I replied with his preferred signal to go: “Hit it!”

He slowly pulled the boat forward.  My feet tightly suctioned within the skis, I pushed as hard as I could, doing what I’d been told.  Lean back, Katie, they told me as well.  But nothing was happening except for my head and entire body were being dragged underwater at a suddenly faster speed.  The water was rushing over my skin so forcefully I remember my skin felt like it was flapping in the wind or something.  I wasn’t scared at first about having my head underwater; just keep leaning back and pushing, I told myself (and my parents were probably thinking that, too).  But after about what felt like ten seconds passed (mind you this is a six year old’s memory, so I may be off on my timing), I felt the need to take a breath.  But my entire head was still underwater.  I tried in vain to get my head above water for a breath, only being pushed further back by the force of the water.  I tried again, glimpsing my family on the boat, my mom holding the rope.  Why aren’t they letting go?! I remember thinking.  That’s when I started to panic, and desperately started trying to move my arms above me in the air and bob my head out of the water, anything to alert them.  I was consciously in a survival mode, aware that I needed air and could drown if they didn’t let go of that rope soon.  

And then I was free; the rope let go of.  My life-jacket’s buoyancy helped surface me, and I took a huge gulp of air, swallowing some water from the big wake, coughing as I struggled to catch my breath.  By the time my dad had circled around to retrieve me, I was crying and panicked.  

“Why didn’t you guys let go?!” I angrily cried.  

They apologized and said it wasn’t that long of a time; that sometimes it takes that long to stand up on skis.  Clearly it wasn’t on purpose; they didn’t mean to scare me.  But I was shaken by that experience.  However, I didn’t let it keep me from the water.  We went boating often, as my parents were waterskiers, and freshwater was my home.  We belonged to Las Trampas swimming pool near our house in Lafayette, going there often in the hot East Bay summers.  We played often in Las Trampas Creek behind our house.  Water was my home, and I wasn’t going to let one experience keep me from it.  Resilience was the lesson here.

A few years later, when I was eight, we were houseboating at Bullard’s Bar, an awesome lake in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.  I was kneeboarding, and had the knee strap wrapped around my thighs.  Being a tiny little eight year old, we had to make it as tight as it would go, and it still was a bit loose.  

“Hit it!” I hollered to my dad.  

Off we went, just the right speed – a cool 13 mph, probably – and I was kneeboarding with a smile on my face.  I’d done it before, but this time I was going to try going crossing the wake for my first time, not a particularly easy thing to do as a child when the wake is nearly as big as you sitting down.  I made it over the left side of the wake to the sound of cheers from the boat.  I took my time enjoying being outside the wake in the relatively glassy waters, proud I’d made it.  But now I had to go back inside the wake.  I angled my board subtly toward the wake, making progress back toward it.  I made it over the peak of the lip, but nose-dived on my way back down, flipping forward and upside down attached to the kneeboard.  

I felt like I was trapped.  My kneeboard upside down, me stuck to it underwater.  The strap was wrapped tightly around my upper thighs by now, and my head kept hitting the kneeboard when I tried to come up for air.  I tried to unvelcro the strap, but either I didn’t have the strength to undo the full length of it, or I was too focused on trying to get my head above the water for air that I simply couldn’t undo it.  Within seconds, I made my head up again and gasped for air, catching a glimpse of my dad jumping off the boat and into the water to come help me.  He swam as quickly as he could as I flailed, panicking, trying to catch a breath.  He flipped me over quickly, unstrapped that darn knee-strap, and I immediately started coughing, breathing hard, and of course, crying my eyes out.  I was so scared.  But my dad and sisters were really comforting to me afterward, and I was kneeboarding again the next day (we forwent the knee-strap, and I just stayed in the wake).  But within a year, I was actually kneeboarding: crossing the wake, using the knee-strap (around my knees, and carefully so), and learning to do a 360 (it took a few seconds for me to turn around and go backwards first, then whip back around, but I still called it a 360).  

Again, resilience was the lesson.  

I kept going in the water, frequenting our local creeks, and traveling often to lakes and rivers with my family.  When I moved to Santa Cruz as a 17-year old to attend college at UCSC, the pervasive surf-culture beckoned me to the ocean.  I was more timid in the ocean, however; most of my water experiences had been in freshwater, not the ocean.  My god, the ocean was a whole different beast.  Sure, we went to the beach as kids occasionally, but freshwater was always our main gig.  It took me some time to reorient myself as an adult with the ocean and its dynamic, awe inducing power.  The fear of drowning in it lingered, especially because currents and waves were capable of rendering you powerless, not to mention it was so huge.  I felt out of control in it, not in a scary way per se, but in a way that didn’t make me want to go in it that much.  Little by little, I got more comfortable being in the ocean.  Wearing a wetsuit offers some buoyancy, and having a leash attached to your board makes the experience a lot more comforting.  I love both the ocean and freshwater now, though freshwater still feels like my first home.   

I must take a moment here as an aside to offer gratitude to my family, whom I was blessed to share so many formative and fun memories with as a child.  I am extremely thankful to my parents for taking us on so many cool vacations as children!  We traveled throughout California, camping and boating at so many lakes and cool places.  When I reflect upon my childhood, the overarching theme that dominates is being outside in nature having fun.  How cool is that!  Go Mom and Dad!

Back to the gist: I have a deep-seated fear of not breathing.  I know I’m not alone in that; it’s a very common, and natural, fear to have.  But when I found out I had apnea, I literally almost fainted at the doctor’s office.  As soon as he showed me the sleep-study graph of the times I weren’t breathing in the night – Here’s the first twenty-three seconds where you’re not breathing – he explained, I felt all the energy in my body empty through my feet.  I laid back on the exam table, and the accompanying nurse quickly asked was I okay.  I took a deep breath and said, “I feel like I’m going to pass out”.  She quickly got me some water, and the doctor turned his attention to me.

Tingly and light-headed, I said, “I just need to breathe for a second”.

There it was again: that breath that I so desperately needed.  I closed my eyes, taking deep breaths, my doctor’s hands on my wrist, assumably monitoring my pulse.  

“It’s okay; a lot of people get anxiety in the doctor’s office.  Have you ever had an episode like this before, like where you felt like you were going to faint at the doctor’s?” he gently posed.

“Well, I used to almost pass out when getting my blood drawn; I’m better about it now, though.  And apparently when I get big medical news.  When I saw that graph of me not breathing…and heard you diagnose my apnea…I think I just got really scared.  Not breathing is already a big fear of mine”, I explained.

The nurse and doctor were extraordinarily kind to me, taking the time to explain what it really meant for me (it’s common to have apnea), and what some potential solutions were.  Knowledge is the antithesis of fear, so I read up on it further.  I tried the CPAP device with another sleep study about a month later, but I felt completely claustrophobic with it, and kept ripping it off in the night.  

For now, I have settled on not doing much about it, except for making sure I get about 9-10 hours of sleep per night to accommodate for all the times I wake up in the middle of the night to catch my breath.  Although I never consciously wake up during these moments of apnea, my doctor explained how they interrupt your REM and sleep cycles, leaving you feeling exhausted in the morning.  Finally, I had a reason for naturally wanting to sleep in most days that I’m not working.  On a more somber note, I am not happy to know that sleep apnea increases your risk of heart disease, and can contribute to other health issues.  I may explore some other treatment options again in the future, but for now, am just trying to make sure I get enough sleep.

Which ties back into finding the balance between wanting something more, and having gratitude for exactly what is now.  

Over the last year or so, the resounding theme was that I wanted something more.  I wrote about it in my journal, talked about with friends and family, and thought often about what that more really meant to me.  I generally do the things I want to do soon after thinking of them, and this year, I certainly did more.  Once I have a goal in mind, I go for it with urgency and intense focus; I’ve always been that way.  I signed up for my mountain bike races, and trained harder for them.  I started this blog; I’m sharing the words I’ve longed to share, and it has been an amazingly powerful catalyst for self-reflection, discovery, and human connection.  I gave more to my marriage and husband; gave more energy to keeping up our home and garden.  I tried harder to take better care of myself.  I had my maiden trip to the Carrizo Plain for the wildflower superbloom; went snowboarding 17 awesome days this Winter season at Kirkwood.  I’ve been mountain biking like a machine; and writing happily, if not compulsively, at times.  Toot, toot, I know.  

But still I wanted more.  And then I realized exactly what that more was:

More time.

It was that simple.  

I just wanted more time to do the things I love to do, to be with the ones I love, and to learn all I can about our incredibly awesome Universe.  Yes, I wanted more money, and yes I wanted to travel more and do more with my life.  But all of that was nothing without the time to do it all. I know that, again, I probably sound a bit like just another spoiled Millennial, but I don’t want to work anymore.  If I didn’t have to work, I would actually have more time to do the things I love to do (that’s where the desire for more money comes in, knowing that with just the right amount, I could retire).  As I’m getting older, I’m realizing just how much we don’t have more time to count on; there’s no assurances of tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.  Time offers no guarantees, no promises, and certainly doesn’t go easy on our physical bodies over the years.  It’s cliche, but I’ll repeat it: all we truly have is now.  

We may not have more time in life, but we can definitely have more gratitude.  

Once I realize that, I feel perfectly content with everything exactly as it is in this moment.  Then I might forget a few minutes later when I get a bill in the mail to pay, or I find myself cursing last night’s burnt-on spaghetti sauce from the stovetop as I scrub it away.  We’re only human.  I admire people who can stay in this state of “now”, of meditative mindfulness, constantly throughout their lives.  I certainly try to, but I’ve definitely got some room for growth.  

Which is why Summer is such a gift: by giving me all of this time off of work, I can realize, yet again, how precious life is.  Feel true gratitude.

It all begins with breath.  Slowing down, enjoying each breath; deep and full, without stress.  

There’s a fantastic line from an even more fantastic movie, As Good As It Gets.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll likely remember the scene where Jack Nicholson is in the waiting room of his psychiatrist’s office.  After poking some fun at the variety of patients, he asks them: “Don’t you people realize?  What if this is as good as it gets?”  

As good as it gets.  That line spoke to millions of people, no doubt, and it was just one of many poignant yet wry lines from a phenomenal movie.  

It really spoke to me when I first saw it.  This is as good as it gets.  I can’t say I’ve always felt that way about my life; I’ve often felt the need for something more, or accomplishing the next goal.

The older I get, though, the more that line starts to resonate with me.  Maybe this really is as good as it gets.  Maybe I don’t need anything more.  Maybe all I really need is to just slow down and take it all in – flowers, butterflies, warts and all.  Maybe I just need more gratitude.  It’s life, and it’s happening all around me all the time.  And it’ll be over before I know it.   

So I’m slowing my flow and soaking up the summertime.  It’s alright to want more, but I must appreciate what I’ve already got right now.  Things don’t have to be “perfect” in life. As long as I have my breath, I have my body; and as long as I have a sound body, I have the opportunity to seize the day and make the most of my short time here on Earth. Having gratitude for life is really what it’s all about.

However you may be spending your Summer, I hope you’re enjoying it whole-heartedly. Whether you’re on vacation or not, we all can appreciate this time of year.

Now time is ticking; get after it!    

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